The newest wrinkle could shake up the city's drive toward a November 2014 bond measure to fund infrastructure. It could also throw a wrench into a proposal by San Francisco-based developer Jay Paul to build a dense development at 395 Page Mill Road, a project that includes two, 71-foot-tall office buildings and a public-safety building at a nearby site.
Since last fall, police department staff have been working with a consulting architect and Jay Paul to hash out the design of the proposed police building. Recently, the architect, Michael Ross, indicated that the proposed site may not be operationally feasible, Police Chief Dennis Burns told City Council's Infrastructure Committee Tuesday.
"We've continuously tried to make this work," Burns said. "We've come to a conclusion that it's more difficult than we thought. We thought it would be a solution we can all work with. It doesn't appear to be the case."
The problem, he said, is the site's configuration, which makes it difficult to program the department's operations. Ross, of the Sonoma-based firm Ross Drulis Cusenbery, is scheduled to appear in front of the committee on May 7 to explain in detail why the Park Boulevard site isn't a good fit.
Ross' finding could have a profound influence on the Jay Paul proposal, which figures heavily into the city's aggressive drive to upgrade its infrastructure. To underscore the importance of the development proposal, the committee and planning staff have come up with an accelerated schedule for reviewing and possibly approving Jay Paul's application. The expedited process includes cutting back on the number of reviews in front of land-use boards (each would get one shot at the project rather than the typical two) and getting to a final vote by next spring so that the council would have time to decide whether the police building should be included in the November bond measure.
Councilman Larry Klein suggested Tuesday that if Jay Paul's project were approved along the lines currently proposed, the city wouldn't need a revenue measure to fund it.
But Burns' comments about the architect's recent findings changed the game and appeared to catch the committee off guard.
"This comes as a surprise to all of us," Klein said, a comment no one refuted.
An updated police building has been a top priority for Palo Alto for at least a decade, with numerous citizen commissions, consultants and city officials concluding that the existing facility is too small and not earthquake-safe. Most recently, a 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission identified it as a top priority and described the current facility in City Hall as "unsafe and vulnerable."
Past attempts focused on purchasing sites on Park Boulevard and expanding the department's space at City Hall by using a mezzanine for police operations. The first plan fizzled in 2009, during the Great Recession, when the council decided that it would be too costly to retain a purchase option on the properties. The second died after consultants determined that the mezzanine is too small to accommodate the department's needs.
Jay Paul's proposal provided a glimmer of hope. The company offered the police building as a "public benefit" in exchange for permission to build the two office towers at the site of AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters. The two buildings would contain about 311,000 square feet of office space, making the development one of the biggest "planned community" projects in Palo Alto. Because it would significantly exceed the zoning regulations at the site (which, under existing law, is already built out to the limit), approval would require Jay Paul to offer public benefits, with the police building topping the list.
The Jay Paul plan has already undergone several changes since the developer made his pitch last September. Initially, Jay Paul had offered to pay for a shell of the police building, with the city footing the bill for interior improvements. More recently, the company offered to swallow most of the bill for the project, which is expected to cost more than $40 million.
Under the plan the company unveiled in September, the police building would be located at 3045 Park Blvd. It would be across the street from Jay Paul's new office buildings and would be connected to a parking garage, which would be shared by the police department and the commercial developments.
But the stumbling block in this case isn't the funding but the location. Burns said that while the department is still working with Jay Paul in hopes of making the proposed police building work, he is concerned that the city may be "shoehorning" things to make it happen.
One possible resolution from the city's standpoint is having Jay Paul build the new police headquarters at a different site. The developer has recently purchased two properties on the 2700 block of Park Boulevard, the very sites that the city has previously considered for a new police building. During a February review, Planning and Transportation Commissioner Arthur Keller argued that this would be better option for the police department.
Burns concurred on Tuesday night that such an option would be well worth considering.
"If they can be responsible for financing a building in another location that would be more suitable for us, we'd be interested in that," Burns said.
Members of the council committee stressed Tuesday that the city needs to move quickly to determine whether a public-safety building is feasible at the site Jay Paul proposed. If it isn't, the city should inform Jay Paul as soon as possible so that the application can be revised, Mayor Greg Scharff told Burns.
"If it's not operational on that site, you have to be very blunt with Jay Paul (about what would work)," Scharff said
Even as they tacitly approved an accelerated timeline for reviewing the Jay Paul application, council members were adamant that the project remains far from a done deal. Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd said she wouldn't want to have a badly designed project just to get a new police building. And Councilman Marc Berman offered an assurance that even though the city is "getting creative with the process" it's not losing any quality.
"We're still taking the same steps we'd normally do, we're just doing them on an accelerated time frame," Berman said,
Berman also agreed with his colleagues that it would be important for council members to hear from Ross as soon as possible so that they can better understand their options for infrastructure improvements.
"Given that we've gone this far, if the decision is to abandon the project — it's a big deal," Berman said.